In a previous essay, I reflected on the fact that this is a unique and glorious time to preach the Gospel. The demands and upheaval brought on by the mysterious coronavirus were far more than most of us ever contemplated as pastors. Seeking to be faithful in preaching, teaching and pastoral care, many ministers were exhausted, spiritually depleted because of the intense and demanding changes. Then came the murder of George Floyd, and a social justice struggle more vividly felt and shared publicly than anything like it since the Civil Rights Movement.
On one hand, the preaching demands during the coronavirus pandemic are primarily pastoral and theological. Where is God in all of this? Is God responsible, what is God’s character? How do I live in community as a “good neighbor”? But on the other hand, the national response to George Floyd’s murder – demonstrations, calls for dramatic restructuring of our policing protocols and systems – adds another, more demanding prophetic layer to our role as ministers, requiring a certain, confident dimension to our preaching and leadership.
Sixty years’ experience in ministry leads me to describe our preaching task as both priest (pastor) and prophet. As Christian leaders, we speak to God for the people, and we speak to the people for God. Within my own responsibilities, I’m beginning a mentoring program with eight young clergypeople. Our conversations will center on the demands for pastoral and prophetic leadership in these days of demonstrations and the pronounced cries for racial justice.
The truth is, we really have no option; we must speak. Paradoxically, even our silence is speaking.
In the late 50’s and early 60’s during the Civil Rights Movement, I was a young minister in Mississippi; my ministry was shaped significantly by the issues raging around that movement. Our Wesleyan Accent editor has asked me to share about that time.
There came the time when violence against our Black neighbors was so widespread, events so dramatically demanding Christian witness, that three fellow ministers and I felt compelled to speak together. Each of us had sought to be faithful in our preaching and teaching in our local churches. The violence toward Black citizens was boiling over throughout the state. We four were young and had no significant institutional voice. We hoped that our bishop and other conference leaders would speak out in response to the rising tide of violent expressions of racism and oppressive prejudice; but the silence was deafening. We knew it was past time for someone to say that not all white Mississippi Methodists would continue to live silently in the closed, segregated society taking its destructive toll on our state.
When the four of us gathered on Monday, October 15, 1962, none of us even faintly guessed what might happen as a result of what we were about. What we did know, and what drove us in our decision and action, was that it was a time when remaining silent would have been irresponsible on our part, and we would’ve betrayed the Gospel we were committed to preaching.
For two days, we reflected, prayed, and talked together; then, we drafted a statement titled Born of Conviction. We engaged 24 others to add their signatures, and the 28 of us together issued the statement to our Methodist Church in Mississippi – and then, “all hell broke loose.” Twenty of the 28 signers of the statement were compelled in different ways and by different circumstances to leave the state. I was among the 20 compelled to leave my home state.
As I have confessed, I am painfully aware of my shortcomings during those days and since; yet despite where I feel I failed, there are lessons to be gleaned from that experience that may be helpful in these days.
There Are Times When We Must Speak
First, there comes a time when we must speak. In our ongoing ministry, we must seek to be faithful in speaking to God for the people and speaking to the people for God. If we are guided by Scripture, the content of our preaching will always have aspects of the pastoral and the prophetic. Yet, occasions come when either the pastoral or the prophetic will become more pronounced.
For instance, we would not be faithful in the context of the coronavirus if, in our preaching and teaching, we were not responding to the pastoral needs and theological questions this new illness raises. With the overlay of social justice concerns dramatically brought to the forefront with George Floyd’s murder, we have an equally demanding prophetic call.
Few pastors find it easy to balance those two dimensions in their week to week teaching and preaching. Some are more pastorally inclined; others more prophetic. Our current situation sets a unique stage for balance. This is a moment when we must speak to both these issues that are defining our times.
Speaking Publicly Invites Pastoral Interaction
Second, speaking publicly sets the table for more honest and fruitful pastoral sharing. There is a sense in which the virus and the demonstrations together should make it easier for a congregation to “hear gladly” a word from the Lord. Pastoral awareness will not allow silence on either issue. Speaking on these challenges will stimulate deeper sharing in personal relationships between pastors and laypeople. When this happens, listening is far more important than speaking on the part of the pastor. If we need to speak, we need to speak clearly and honestly, as transparently as possible. In the midst of controversy, to try to hide something undermines understanding and reconciliation. If we have listened, and if we speak respectfully with and to those who disagree with what we are saying and doing, then we can move forward with energy and without apology.
Counting the Cost Is a Spiritual Exercise
Third, “counting the cost” can be a positive spiritual exercise. There is cost no matter what the setting and challenges are. In most local churches, preaching on social issues will raise questions and opposition. I have been in settings where no one questioned my speaking on abortion but resistance to speaking on fair housing was heavy.
The “cost” varies. In the United Methodist Church of which I am a part, ordained elders of an annual conference are guaranteed a pastoral appointment. Many of our Wesleyan Methodist ministers serve in denominations in which local congregations call and vote on their pastors. Your consideration of cost is a different kind than mine.
Yet there was no question that there would be cost when I shared authorship and signed that “Born of Conviction” statement in Mississippi decades ago. I think of my wife Jerry. One can imagine how it felt on long nights; she knew what we were seeking to do. She was a 23-year-old with two babies; the cost – a move to California far from her mother and father, seeking to express friendship, to witness, and to share in developing a new congregation. But there was the cost in the long months after we issued the statement, before we moved to California. She knew about our friend – the doctor who had delivered our babies – calling for my resignation; she knew the anger and frustration stirring in the congregation, the unnamed people making angry telephone calls.
There is cost, and it is not all immediate. I often wrestled in my conscience about leaving Mississippi. Even after many years, I found myself in spiritual turmoil, thinking: if the church had been different…if there had been episcopal and other leadership that had supported us young clergy who were seeking to faithful…then I could have stayed.
There is cost, and we can only seek to make our decisions on the basis of faithfulness to our calling, perceived through prayer and the best counsel we receive from Christian conferencing with persons we trust. We must acknowledge that every person’s faithfulness will not be expressed in the same way.
There will be pushback to our preaching, the level of resistance determined by our individual settings, and how long and in what ways we have served our congregation. We can only measure the cost as individuals in very particular settings. If our congregational leadership is earnestly seeking to be faithful to Scripture and to Kingdom principles, we can negotiate specific actions and responses. Only the pastor on site can determine what it means to be faithful today, in this time and setting.
The people we lead are “souls committed to our care.” The very thought of being responsible to speak to God for them, and to speak to them for God may and should make us quiver inside. We must trust no longer in our own capacity but in God’s power.
Days like these clearly demand some witness from the church. That witness from the church to the larger community begins with the witness clearly shared within the church. When our people have experienced the genuineness of pastoral caring, speaking to God for them, they are more apt to listen to our speaking to them for God.
Reflecting on 60 years in ministry, whatever the costs have been, I relish memories of specific occasions when I have tackled prophetic preaching which was effective because of pastoral attention.